Ask the Chief: dress for success

In the manner of dressing for work,  the corporate world I entered in 2000,  was a lot like the corporate world where my father worked.  That is,  suits, or sport coats with button-down shirts and ties,  nice slacks and polished leather shoes.  With the corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the CEO and founder a product of the late 1950s, we dressed up even when we never left the office.  But employment in San Diego in the new Millennium was being influenced more by Silicon Valley than Wall Street or Foggy Bottom in D.C.

Not surprisingly, the client of my employers in that first decade of the Twenty-First Century were the Naval officers and senior civilian staff (SPAWAR) who oversaw technical development in ships, electronic systems and aircraft for the Navy and Marine Corps. Since the military has prescribed uniforms for daily wear, and standardized grooming,  these military officers had a certain expectation for civilians who supported their efforts.

In published articles in the Wall Street Journal and Scientific American , studies have shown also that dressing well, whether in button-down shirt and tie,  or  “business casual”,  in the years since my father’s generation retired,  has positive benefits on worker advancement, attitude and productivity.  When I first interviewed at my company eleven years ago, I was still a member or the Navy Reserve and a Chief Petty Officer, so I arrived fit, clean-shaven, with shined shoes, and in a tailored suit.  When the offer of employment was accepted,  I was told that the dress code, when our clients were not on site, was more casual.  California in general and San Diego, in particular,  is a center of technical businesses, Integrated Circuits, Biotech, software companies and avionics.  But with several universities in the area,  interns and later their graduates were recruited and accommodated with casual dress options, flexible working hours and amenities from gyms to coffee houses to volleyball courts.  Of course, the industrial standard requirements for manufacturing areas are as uniform in required dress as the military.

While senior management of the major divisions were often more formal due frequent meetings with senior-level clients, it was still an office environment where a staff meeting occurred at 10 AM to allow for surfing or gym workouts.   In the last ten years however, the growth of the company has changed the culture slightly.  From acquisitions, becoming a publicly-traded company, and increasing leadership roles in major technical boards, advisory groups and other businesses, business casual, including button-down shirts, nice tailored polos (with the corporate logo) and slacks and leather shoes is increasingly seen in the middle and senior division-management and those groomed for their next level.  New hires, and casual employees who make a significant contribution to a project  (read “brain trust”) are often the ones who are more casually attired year-round.

What does all this mean for the transitioning military member who has the education or the skills to enter the corporate world?  It means having to adjust their “uniform” for the workday.   While it may seem refreshing to wear baggy shorts and sandals,  or hair that recalls more of the college dorm life than a corporate environment,  one’s work ethic and contribution to a project, may be hindered.  During meetings with military or senior government clients,  a sharp appearance can foster more productive outcome.    And the more ambitious a former military member becomes, there is value in a certain standout appearance.

This also seems to motivate employees to maintain or enhance a certain fitness and healthier lifestyle.  Not only because the workplace may subsidize health insurance for workers more generously for fitness, but also it reflects better on the employee’s advancement opportunities.  (Of course,  this does not imply that any of the equal opportunity standards that govern employment are overlooked.)  A sharper appearance and a healthier overall person is more often a better candidate when looking at similar qualifications.

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